August 2009

The nero d’avola grape has a reputation for making rustic, not to say coarse, red wines, but the Mirabile Nero d’Avola 2006, from Sicily, has a smooth way with tannins and a rich way with fruit that make it not just tasty but delectable. While it’s true that after 30 minutes or so you notice some briary, barky austerity sneaking in around the edges, the wine is primarily mellow and drinkable, bursting with spicy black currant, blackberry and blueberry scents and flavors that are robust and deep and ripe. With some patient swirling of the glass, notes of potpourri and bitter chocolate emerge in the dense, chewy texture. Try with hearty pasta dishes, barbecue ribs and steaks. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.
Domaine Select Imports, New York.

We drank this wine with pizza last night. Toppings were grilled eggplant, tomatoes, green onions, smoked black pepper bacon (the best bacon we have ever eaten) and some mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. LL pronounced it one of my top pizzas.

Well, My Readers, it’s time to wrap things up for the trip to Germany. This is the 12th post, and I’ve covered about every topic, issue and idea that came out of that too-brief sojourn. Today, I thought it would be fun to turn to some of the best meals, or at least dishes, that I ate in Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz and then finish with a list of the best wines I encountered during those four days. As you will see, not once were we presented with sauerbraten or sausages.
Tuesday, July 7. I didn’t take my camera to the introductory dinner on our first night, so I can’t provide a visual record of one of the best fish courses I have ever eaten. This was at the restaurant l’herbe de Provence, which occupies the whole first floor of the sleekly modern Zwo Hotel and Restaurant in Oppenheim. The dish was a filet of rotbarben (rouget barbet or red mullet) on braised apricots with fried chanterelle mushrooms. That was it. Utter simplicity and completely fabulous in its balance of sweet and savory and earthy sensations and of complimentary textures. Also simple yet almost heartbreakingly lovely was the pinot blanc that accompanied the dish, the Guntersblumer Weisburgunder 2007 from Geheimrat Schnell.

Wednesday, July 8. After a day visiting estates and tasting wines in Rheingau, we touched down in the village of Hattenheim, in front of the venerable Zum Krug Weinhaus und Hotel, where the chef Josef Laufer presides over the kitchen. His father, also Josef Laufer, is founder of the establishment, though the building dates back to the early 18th Century. Laufer prepared an inventive, intriguing meal for our group, not every element of which worked. For example, the second course, for which I will not transcribe the German name, consisted of a cup of foamed soup made from organic goat cheese adorned with basil pesto and a portion of air-dried country ham, each perched on a rectangular plate. The soup was good; the ham was good; they did not compose a relationship together.

On the other hand, Laufer provided what was probably the best meat course of the trip. This was a shoulder of free-range pig in elderflower syrup (Holunderblütenöl) — I’m not certain of the cooking method — on a bed of kohlrabi with “little mushrooms” (Pfifferlingen) and new potatoes, a dish that went far beyond the concept of common “meat and potatoes.” And while I did not get used to drinking riesling with meat courses — I think people got tired of me saying, “Man, I sure wish I had a Ridge Three Valleys Zinfandel with this!” — the fact is that the brilliant Jakob Jung Erbach Hoherrain Erste Gewächs (“First Growth”) Riesling 2002 eased my pain.

Thursday, July 9. Evening brought us to Weingut Gysler, a producer that has been operating in the Rheingau village of Alzey since 1450 and is now run by Alexander Gysler on biodynamic principles; the wines, which display gratifying delicacy and authority, are certified by Demeter and BIO. Instead of dining at a restaurant, dinner was catered at Gysler by celebrated young chef Peter Scharff, who left a Michelin one-star restaurant to start a group called Kulinarische Kompetenz. I found his resemblance to Emperor Franz-Josef — or was it Ludwig, Mad King of Bavaria? — striking. Scharff and his staff grow 200 to 250 herbs, many of which found their way into these courses. We didn’t have a printed menu, so my interpretation of some of these dishes may be sketchy.

I thought that the first course involved salmon “three ways,” but I could find only two, a salmon mousse, cunningly surrounded by paper-thin half-moons of radish, and deeply flavorful smoked salmon, accompanied by a tangle of crisp, fresh greens. It was a complicated dish, but delicious. Next came braised beef shoulder and smoked and braised beef cheeks on roasted tomatoes with root vegetables, of which I was not so fond, because it seemed neither to tax the chef’s ingenuity nor to rise too high about the “meat and potatoes” level,” which is not to save that I didn’t clean my plate.

Dessert, though, was this beautiful panna cotta with fresh berries and herbs. Each plate also held, on the rim, a little totem of dark chocolate. This was, I think, the hit of the evening, along with Gysler’s Weinheimer Hölle Huxelrebe Spätlese 2008 served with it. One of our party who had a car promptly bought a case.
Friday, July 10. The plains and gently rolling hills of Pfalz held our attention today. We had lunch at Netts Restaurant und Weinbar, in Gimmeldingen, along with a tasting of wines from Weingut A. Christmann. The restaurant, designed in a spare contemporary manner with white walls and plain wood accents — and with a stunning view from the dining room of a great shallow valley stretching for miles — wasn’t scheduled to open for another week, so this was a special occasion. You could tell that the establishment wasn’t finished by such details as the mirror in the men’s restroom held in place by a two-by-four; that’s usually a giveaway. Though the food was simple, it was impeccably prepared and presented, adding up to what was probably our most coherent meal from beginning to end. It didn’t hurt that the Christmann rieslings were superb, though I thought that two pinot noirs were too spicy and worked over by oak.

First, a simple piece of rabbit loin rhubarb sauce, with two wines, Christmann’s Ruppertsberger Linsenbusch Riesling 2008 and the Königsbacher Ölberg Riesling 2008, which is to say, an excellent wine followed by an amazing wine.

Then, a lovely terrine of peas and carrots with an arugula salad and hazetnut pesto, with the excellent Reiterpfad Grosses Gewächs (“Grand Cru”) Riesling 2004 followed by the exceptional Idig Grosses Gewächs Rieling 2003.

If the meal at Netts had a weak spot, it was that the next course seemed a tad obvious, a little less subtle that the others. This was roulades of trout stuffed with herbs served over onion marmalade with gnocchi on the side. These wines, too, the pinots I mentioned before, were the weakest in the roster.

Finally, a sort of rhubarb crumble served in a small tumbler with whipped cream and a strawberry on top. I took my dessert to a window sill to get some different light — a food tourist with a camera is a terrible thing — and the waiter, evidently thinking that my empty place meant that I hadn’t gotten any dessert, kindly brought another. And I ate that one too!

Friday, July 10. For our final dinner of the trip, we were driven to Deidesheim, where we convened at Zur Kanne, a restaurant and hotel that has been serving guests since 1160. We were tasting the wines of Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, a relatively youthful estate that has been producing mainly rieslings only since 1597. Perhaps by this time I was weary of orchestrated wine-tasting meals; as good as the courses were, my favorites were two simple soups, an amuse bouche of cold cucumber soup with creme fraiche, and the potato soup with wild-garlic pesto that came between the trout and the pork. Not that these soups weren’t fairly rich, of course.

Ah, yes, more trout and pork! Not a thing wrong with the trout — whole this time, and served with a sort of Mediterranean zucchini and tomato salad — or the silky smooth rack of young pork (Jungschwein) with a piece of corn on the cob, pierced by a fork, and roasted potatoes, and I bet travelers didn’t get food like this in the 12th century. Still, I wanted something light, something undemanding. At 110 hectares –almost 283 acres — Dr. Bürklin-Wolf is a huge estate by German standards, but several of the wines we tried, especially the Gaisböhl Grosses Gewächs Riesling trocken 2007 with the pork and the Gaisböhl Riesling Auslese 2002 with dessert — strawberries with Grand Marnier and ice cream — were outstanding.

Going back through my notes, I think we tasted about 85 wines on this brief trip to Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz. Many of these were noteworthy for intensity and purity and authenticity, but after much consideration and weighing their multitude of effects, I settled on these 15 as the best, 14 whites, mostly riesling, and one red, that is pinot noir (spätburgunder). Why do this? Why even make these differentiations and sort out a hierarchy of the “best?” Because that’s the kind of guy I am. I like lists and matters put in order, tied with a bow of finality. So there.

>Graf von Kanitz Riesling Trocken 2006, Rheingau.
>Weingut Jakob Jung Erbach Hoherrain Riesling 2002, Rheingau.
>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshoher Scheurebe Spätlese 2008, Rheinhessen
>Peter Jakov Kuhn Doosberg Riesling 2007, Rheingau
>St. Antony Nierstein Pettenthan Riesling G.G. 2008, Rheinhessen.
>Kuling-Gillot Ölberg Riesling G.G. 2007, Rheinhessen
>Battenfeld Spanier “CO” Riesling 2008, Rheinhessen
>Geysler Weinheimer Hölle Huxelrebe Spätlese 2008, Pfalz
>Heimer Sauer Hinter dem Schloss Weisburgunder Spätlese trocken 2007, Pfalz.
>Heimer Sauer Gleisweiler Hölle Riesling Beerenauslese 2005, Pfalz
>A. Christmann Königsbacher Ölberg Riesling 2008, Pfalz
>A. Christmann Idig G.G. Riesling 2003, Pfalz
>Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Gaisböhl G.G. Riesling Trocken 2007, Pfalz
>Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Gaisböhl Riesling Auslese 2002, Pfalz
>Heimer Sauer Spätburgunder 2005, Pfalz.
Image of Peto Scharff by Ernst Büscher; all others by F.K.

We’re in the last week of August, but summery weather will linger through September into the waning of the light and the coloring of the leaves. Besides, who said that rosé wines are only for drinking from, say, April or May through August or September anyway? Not me! Here then are notes on 10 rosés from France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America. My very tip-top favorites on this roster are, unfortunately, limited in number and/or distribution, but the majority can be found all over the place.

Whenever I’m in New York, I look for the elegant, stylish and unusual wines of Channing Daughters, a 25-acre winery in Bridgehampton, at the East End of Long Island’s North Fork. The Channing Daughters Cabernet Franc Rosato 2008. North Fork, is made in classic South of France fashion, featuring an entrancing pale onion-skin hue and a bouquet — and that’s the right word — of dried red currants, strawberries and orange blossom. This rosé is quite dry, vibrant with crisp acidity and resolute minerality (to balance a texture that’s almost lush and succulent) yet with lovely, sensual heft and delicious flavors of melon, peach and orange zest. One of the best. 369 cases. Excellent. About $17.
Way off on the other side of America, across the forests primeval, the fruited plains, the glorious mountains and bleak deserts, sliding down the west side of the Sierras and into the fertile precincts of California’s wine country, not far from the towering waves of the Pacific and the abrupt bark of the sleek sea lion, we find the Gargiulo Money Road Ranch Rosato di Sangiovese 2008, Oakville District, Napa Valley. The color is ruddy onion-skin, that is to say, pale, pale copper with a hint of radiant dusty rose. The bouquet draws you in with seductive aromas of dried red currants, strawberries, melon and a hint of — hmmm, how can I say this? — appley-citrus? Flavors of melon and strawberry are highlighted by an intriguing hints of pomegranate, dried herbs and shale. Great tone and presence, and also one of the best, though the price is a little ouchy. 450 cases. Excellent. About $30.
Now down to the Antipodes, for one entry each from Australia and New Zealand, and if you ever fly from L.A. to Sydney you’ll wish you had a couple of bottles of these wines. You could pass a health care bill in the time that flight takes.

The Robert Oatley Rosé of Sangiovese 2008, Mudgee, New South Wales, sports an attractive pale, smoky topaz color with light sunset-copper highlights. A bouquet of red raspberries with strawberries and melon leads to flavors of red currants and raspberries with a touch of plum (like the shadow of the fruit) nestled in a spare texture that balances crisp acidity and a marked stony quality with moderate lushness. The finish brings in some dusty weeds and dried herbs. Quite nice, very refreshing. Very Good+. About $18.

An unusual multi-geographical blend of merlot, malbec, syrah and pinot noir, the Wild Rock Vin Gris Rosé 2008, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, offers a shimmering light cherry-cerise color. The nose is all raspberries and strawberries with elements of shale and limestone and a squeeze of lime and apple; this is incredibly vibrant and lively, surprisingly earthy for a rose though notably clean and engaging, a little raffiné yet jaunty, a boulevardier of a rose. Red currant takes over after a few minutes in the glass. Very charming. Very Good+. About $15, Good Value.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
The rest of these rose wines are European

Forget the pronunciation; just write it down or print out this post. The wine is Gurrutxaga 2008, the grape is hondarribbi beltza — there’s also a white hondarrabi zuri — and the region is Txacoli de Bizkaia in Spain’s Basque country. The color is pale copper-salmon, the nose a sort of smoky, earthy and minerally wreathing of melon and dried cranberry. The wine is very dry, lean and crisp, austere, stony, freighted with flavors of dried red fruit and dried herbs with a hint of exotic spice. Quite enjoyable and one of the most unusual roses I have encountered. Very Good+. About $25.
Imported by De Maison Selections, Chapel Hill, N.C.

La Scolca, in Piedmont, knows its way around the white cortese grape, being one of the few producers of Gavi wines that are worth seeking out for intensity and authenticity. La Scolca Rosa Chiara 2008, Vino da Tavola Rosato, is a blend of 90 percent cortese and 10 percent pinot noir — according to the press material; 95/5 according to the website — making it not at all a traditional rosé wine, which is a pale wine made from red grapes; this is, instead, a white wine blended with red grapes to give it a pale, rosy “eye of the partridge” color. The pinot noir grapes for the wine are fermented and age briefly in large old French barrels (tonneaux), bringing interesting character, body and spice to La Scolca Rosa Chiara 2008. Dried fruit, strawberry and red currents are heightened by dried flowers, almond blossom and hints of cloves and orange rind, like sniffing a pomander. The wine is very dry, very stony, a little exotic, with its touches of pomegranate and cranberry, and it’s ultimately utterly charming. Very Good+. About $14, and a Great Bargain.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.
The rest of this line-up of rosé wines is French.

I was pretty well knocked out by Le Rosé de Mouton Cadet 2008, Bordeaux, a blend of 65 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet franc and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, just as if it were a real grown-up red from St. Emilion or Pomerol, the “Right Bank” regions of Bordeaux where merlot dominates. The color is a beguiling cherry-watermelon hue, and the bouquet delivers shades of strawberry and raspberry with dried red currants and a touch, after a few minutes, of candied rhubarb. This is a beautifully knit rose, displaying more sophistication than most wines of the genre attain; dried red fruit flavors open to reveal hints of peach and lemon zest enlivened by crisp acidity and a prominent mineral edge. Produced by the Baron Philippe de Rothschild company. Very Good+. The price is an astonishing $10, often discounted to $8. Buy it by the case.
Imported by Constellation Wines U.S.
Let’s move from Bordeaux to the Loire Valley. Beginning in 1693, the antecedents of the Raffault family maintained their vineyards in Chinon. The present estate, Jean-Maurice Raffault, is well-known for its red wines from the cabernet franc grape. The Raffault Chinon Rosé 2008, made from 100 percent cabernet franc, belies its pale copper color by the robust nature of its slightly briery red current and dried raspberry scents and flavors and a rather tea-like maceration of smoky orange rind. The wine is very dry, quite earthy and minerally, vastly vibrant and refreshing. Excellent. About $17.
Imported by V.O.S. Selections, New York.
Now we make a trek from the Loire Valley way down to the southern Rhone Valley and the Côtes de Provence.

The color of the Chateau de Ségriès Tavel 2008 is a gorgeous medium pink-pale cherry, so brilliant that it seems lit from within. A blend of 50 percent grenache, 30 percent cinsault, 15 percent clairette and 5 percent syrah, this is a lovely rosé, subtle and supple yet engagingly spicy. Scents and flavors of red currents and macerated strawberries are couched in a texture of moderate lushness enlivened by vibrant, crystalline acidity, while from the beginning the layers of shale and gravel provide foundation and framing. Transparently agreeable, highly drinkable. Excellent. About $20.
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

The Coeur Estérelle Rosé 2008, Côtes de Provence, is produced by Chateau du Rouët, founded in 1840 in the foothills of the mountains that give the wine its name. A traditional blend of carignane, cinsault and grenache, Coeur Estérelle 2008 offers a beautiful pale melon color and a bouquet of dried red currents and strawberries. This rosé is almost savory, with a whiff of sea salt, bracing acidity, and flavors of spiced and macerated red currents and raspberries touched with dried thyme and rosemary, all of this grounded in dusty minerality. Yet the wine is not robust, being rather a construct of delicacy woven upon delicacy. Delightful. Very Good+ and a Bargain at about $13.
Village Wine Imports, New York.

Smoking Loon is among the most familiar of inexpensive wine labels in the U.S.A. Produced by Three Loose Screws division of Don Sebastiani & Sons — no connection to Sebastiani Vineyards, but that’s a different story — Smoking Loon offers 10 varietal wines with a California designation at a bargain level $10, often discounted to $8.

Now Smoking Loon has a more serious cousin in the form of Flock, a just debuted label. Each of the five wines in the roster carries a different appellation — Napa Valley, Mendocino, Paso Robles and so on — and at half-again the price as Smoking Loon, they’re at least twice as good.

My current favorite of these wines is the Flock Old Vines Zinfandel 2007, Dry Creek Valley. DCV is well-known for its venerable zinfandel vineyards, many planted around the turn of the 20th Century by Italian immigrants, but nothing on this label informs us about how old these “old vines” are. (I think that there ought to be regulations defining what “old vines” are; that would be helpful to consumers and would promote confidence in wineries.)

Anyway, the Flock O.V. Zinfandel ’07 is lively and spicy out of the starting gate; spiced and macerated black currant, blueberry and plum flavors are permeated by briers and brambles, a hint of freshly ground black pepper and a penetrating yet almost creamy mineral quality. The texture is plush and cushiony but given an edge by vibrant acidity and dusty, chewy tannins with a slight charcoal edge. The finish picks up more earth and minerality, leading to some dry austerity from mid-palate back, though that aspect balances the wine’s lushness. We had this with duck “two ways” — roasted and confit — at Sole restaurant in Memphis, a fruitful match, and then tried another bottle at home. Other good pairings would be steak, pork chops, chili and such. Lots of personality for the price. Very Good+. About $15.

During the four days that I was in Germany in July, our group heard over and over from producers and winemakers that the Wine Law of 1971 marked a body-blow to the German wine industry from which it has struggled for almost 40 years to recover. Indeed, in his chapter on the Wine Law in The Wines of Germany (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), Stephen Brook uses words like “abuse,” villainous,” “terminological rape” and “inanity” to describe the regulations and their effects. While an explanation of German wine label terms and the strictures of the Wine Law could take a semester of seminars and workshops, let me heroically attempt such a feat in one incredibly over-simplifying blog post.

(This post is not a guide to reading German wine labels. For that precise information go here or here.)

And before we leap to the heart of the matter, let me draw an analogy between the vineyard systems of Burgundy and Germany. In contrast to Bordeaux, for example, where the estate and the wine are synonymous, in Burgundy and Germany the villages and vineyards hold the qualitative pride of place, with many producers making wine from the same vineyard, of which they may own a piece or purchase grapes from another owner. In Bordeaux, for example, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is the name of the wine and the estate, and its vineyards are its own. On a Burgundy label, the words Volnay Le Cailleret indicate (first) the village and (second) the vineyard, just as on a German label the words Nierstein Ölberg indicate the same village/vineyard sequence. Most of the wine world follows the model of Bordeaux, to greater or lesser degree.

O.K., now, here’s how the German Wine Law struck the death knell for the country’s fine wine estates.

First, the committees that came up with the Wine Laws completely ignored the traditions of quality differences among vineyards. Let’s face it: some vineyards are better than others. That’s why, in Burgundy, for instance, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, a Grand Cru vineyard, (usually) commands a higher price than Gevry-Chambertin Les Cazetiers, a Premier Cru vineyard, or why, in California, wines made from vineyards with long histories of producing high-quality wines, such as To-Kalon or Sanford & Benedict, are sought after by collectors. What makes one vineyard better than another is a subject for another post or seven, but, briefly, it’s a matter of the nuances of exposure, drainage and soil/sub-soil composition along with variations in the consistency of warmth and coolness during the day and at night. Such details, both minute and sweeping, of geography and micro-climate can change within a few hundred yards or even from one side of a road to the other. Fortunes depend on such subtleties.

As far as the German Wine Law is concerned, however, the greatest virtue of a wine is not where it came from or the grape variety from which it was made but the ripeness of the grapes.

The whole spectrum of German wines falls under these divisions: 1. Deutscher Tafelwein (German table wine); 2. Landwein (country wine); 3. Qualitätswein bestimmer Anbaugebiete (QbA, quality wine of a specified appellation); and 4. Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP, quality wines with distinction). The vast majority of wine made in Germany is Tafelwein and Landwein; few regulations apply to these levels and little is exported. QbA wines — often signified just by the word Qualitätswein on labels — must conform to regional laws and must be tested by a compliance committee; these wines may have sugar added during fermentation to achieve the required level of alcohol.

QmP wines, which may not have sugar added to them, were codified in the German Wine Law of 1971 as such: Kabinett; Spätlese, Auslese; Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerauslese. The categories are defined by law in ascending order, starting with Kabinett, in terms of the ripeness of the grapes and the potential alcohol content (that is to say, from driest to sweetest) and the specific lateness and method of harvest. The Wine Law clearly implies that the ascending order is one of increasing quality; a Spätlese wine, in other words, is inherently “better” than a Kabinett and so on.

Second, the German Wine Law of 1971 shanghaied the names of well-favored villages and attached them to broad regional designations (Grosslages), thereby diluting the reputation of the village and its often illustrious vineyards. “How many people would know,” Brook writes in The Wines of Germany, “that Piesporter Goldtröpfchen was the name of one of the finest sites on the Mosel, while Piersporter Michelsberg was a Grosslage name that incorporated a vast area of utterly mediocre vineyards on overfertile flat land at some distance from the river?” In other words, it is perfectly legal for a wine designated Piesporter Michelsberg to have no wine from Piesport in it.

Obviously this scheme favors large producers who can take advantage of a famous name to display on labels of generic wine. It also favors wine sellers who can persuade their customers to purchase more expensive Spätlese or Auslese wines because they’re “better” than Kabinetts. (I saw a newsletter from a German wine club that described the principle virtue of QbA wines as “to mix with club soda.”)

However, some of the best wines I tried in Germany were Kabinett wines of classic intensity and authority or Spätleses made in the dry or “half-dry” (trocken or halb-trocken) fashion. Other great wines I encountered were QmP wines declassified to QbA or deliberately made outside the QmP system, just as producers in Italy used to opt for the lowly Vino da Tavola designation to make wines from officially unapproved grapes. That’s one method by which fine estates in Germany are trying to produce authentic and individualistic wines without being hampered by illogical regulations.

Another method is the creation of a self-regulating regional Grand Cru (Grosses Gewächs) system designed by the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) and legalized in 2006. As admirable, however, as this classification system may be in identifying and supporting Germany’s finest vineyards (though who could say that these choices are not arbitrary to some extent), the VDP’s relentless emphasis lies with dry wines at the Kabinett and Spätlese levels, at the expense of the inimitable dessert wines that are the real glory of Germany’s wine industry. It’s true that in a changing world German wine consumers turn increasingly to dry wines, but the wonderful heritage of that golden nectar must not be minimized or forsaken.

All the instruments agreed that yesterday afternoon in Memphis was hot as blazes and ridden with shirt-soaking humidity. Nonetheless, we sat out on the screened porch about 5:30 with a bottle of white wine, invitingly sheathed in beaded condensation, and a bowl of our favorite little Tuscan crackers, LL to finish that morning’s Times, and me to continue reading a biography of Frank O’Hara, and saying to LL about every three minutes, “Whoa, it must have been so much fun to live in New York in the ’50s!”

Now unless you are the sort of person endowed with the fiduciary prowess to say something like, “Let’s sit outside this afternoon. I’ll grab a bottle of Lynch Bages Blanc” — a wine I will admit not tasting for a decade or so — then you, like I, would bring something more modest to the table, in this case a bottle of El Coto Rioja Blanco 2008. This is not a great wine, and I think that anyone sipping from a glass of it would feel the same. It’s made from viura grapes, and not meaning to cast aspersions, this is a grape simply incapable of greatness. You could throw a lot of French oak at it, as some misguided producers are doing with the unsuspecting grüner veltliner grape in Austria, and the result would not be a great wine but merely an over-oaked, ponderous wine.

El Coto Rioja Blanco 2008 is, however, thoroughly enjoyable. Made completely in stainless steel, it’s taut and stony, moderately spicy in its general citrus-like nature, dry and crisp and with an almost haunting floral aspect. Fulfilling its purpose as a screened porch, late Summer afternoon, aperitif quaffer, it rates Good+, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with that. About $10, and appropriate for poolside, picnics, patios and such. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Later for dinner, though, needing more character and presence, I opened the Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007, Carneros, Napa Valley. Here’s a chardonnay perfectly suited to our palates. Given a cool fermentation in stainless steel, the wine is transferred to French oak barrels, of which only 35 percent are new; the wine does not go through the malolactic process — in which sharp apple-like (“malic”) acid is transformed to smooth milk-like (“lactic”) acid — the result being a chardonnay that tastes like the grape, is lively and vibrant, and receives subtle and supple support from wood. The Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007 is bright and bold, with a lovely shape and texture, a sort of lushness permeated by crispness thing, as if you were biting into a peach and an apple at the same time. Classic flavors of pineapple and grapefruit reveal nuances of cloves and roasted hazelnuts, while the finish is sleek, resonant and slightly floral. Drink now through 2011 or ’12 (well-stored). Excellent. About $28.

My point, lecteurs, semblables et freres, is not that one wine is better or worse than another wine but that a wine makes its place with a sense of purpose as well as accommodation. There’s room for compromise between the positions that (A.) you can drink any wine any time with any food you want to and that (B.) each wine created on God’s Green Earth matches with one exact and Platonic food or dish and no other. What’s important is a sense of proportion. When we look at a Dutch still-life painting — this is Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie (1631) by Willem Claesz Heda — the glasses of wine depicted therein embody an astounding sense of authority and deliberation. This ideal, we think, this bride of quietness, is the only possible wine that could have found a place in this setting, among these glowing foods and burnished plates and utensils and glittering fabrics, and I defy you not to wish that you were there, in that painting, so you could try that wine, which would surely offer a form of transcendence.

We do not, however, as much as we might wish, live inside a Dutch still life painting, and in this imperfect world all we can hope for is a modicum of poise, the reasonableness to make choices based on our preferences and experiences, two qualities that feed from and strengthen each other. Are there truly no wrongs choices in choosing wine? Of course there are, but even wrong choices broaden our experience and help lead us to the right ones. Just don’t expect too much of wine — it’s only a beverage — but let it speak to you itself of its own virtues and let it find its own place.

“Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie” hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

Well, My Readers, I apologize for being tardy getting out the Wine of the Week. Mea culpa and several slaps with a wet noodle.

So, if you’re tired of slogging through damp wood, and if you’re looking for a minerally chardonnay to go with those grilled shrimp or salmon (which is what we drank this with), try the Sebastiani Unoaked Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Made all in stainless steel, but going through malolactic fermentation, this is a delightful chardonnay, not a word one uses often in connection with this grape variety. Clean, fresh and steely, the wine offers hints of spiced lemon and baked apple in the nose, along with an abundance of limestone and gun-flint. The texture is sleek and satiny, and the wine, balancing moderate richness and lushness with vibrant acid, is lively and resonant. Citrus and pear flavors are permeated by subtle tones of baking spice and a plethora of shale and limestone. Not a wine for aging, but should retain its charm through the Spring or Summer of 2010. Very Good+. About $18.

Last week I went to a blind tasting of 14 rieslings from around the world. This was hosted by Great Wine & Spirits, a retail store in Memphis that puts on a tasting almost every Saturday afternoon throughout the year. (Not at the store; Tennessee law forbids tasting wine in a wine store, a policy so stupidly stupid that it’s almost beyond comment.)

Generally these are tastings of assorted wines that fit a season or a genre or a price-point, but during the summer the events are conducted blind and each Saturday focuses on a different grape variety. Attendees at the tastings vote on their favorites, and the winners are featured at the store at discount prices. I don’t make it to all of these events, but considering my encounters with riesling in Germany early in July and the number of rieslings I have been tasting at home, I thought that I shouldn’t miss this one.

The interesting result of this blind tasting was that the top three winners were German wines, including two that were my favorites. People attending the event ranged from a couple, sitting at my table, for whom this was their first wine tasting to another couple, sitting nearby, who casually discussed buying cases of this and that and were clearly experienced tasters and drinkers.

The wines we tasted, in this order (which we didn’t know during the event) were these:

1. Lengs & Cooter Riesling 2007 (Clare Valley, Australia)
2. Domäne Wachau “Wachau” Riesling 2007 (Austria)
3. Firestone Vineyards Riesling 2007 (Central Coast, California)
4. King Estate “Next” Riesling 2007 (Washington State)
5. Bergström “Dr. Bergström” Cuvee Riesling 2007 (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
6. Pierre Sparr Reserve Riesling 2006 (Alsace)
7. Barnard Griffin White Riesling 2007 (Columbia Valley, Washington)
8. Schloss Vollrads Summer Dry QbA 2006 (Rheingau, Germany)
9. S.A. Prüm “Blue Slate” Riesling Kabinett 2006 (Mosel, Germany)
10. Schmitt Söhne “Anything Goes” Riesling QbA 2008 (Mosel, Germany)
11. August Kesseler Riesling QbA 2007 (Rheingau, Germany)
12. Schloss Vollrads Riesling QbA 2007 (Rheingau, Germany)
13. Dr. Loosen “Dr. L” Riesling 2008 (Mosel, Germany)
14. Mönchhof Estate Riesling 2007 (Mosel, Germany)

“QbA” stands for Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, a vast category of German wine whose principle standard is that the wines were made in the stated area of production. Depending on the estate or producer, QbA wines can be quite good, even excellent. The QbA level comes below the highest category of German wines, QmP, or Qualitätswein mit Prädikat.

The winner in this tasting was August Kesseler, followed by a tie between Monchhof Estate and Schmitt Söhne’s Anything Goes.

Here are my brief tasting notes, transcribed from my little blue notebook:
1. Lengs & Cooter, “Lemon-lime, minerals — quite pungent — unfurls with lime, grapefruit and jasmine, really lovely, bristling acid, taut and crisp.” Very Good. About $19.

2. Domäne Wachau, “attractive yet subdued — jasmine, limestone, lime & grapefruit finely ground — whiff of petrol — nicely balanced, some peach & apricot — mouth-filling — solid finish , v. dry with heaps of limestone.” Very Good+. About $16-$19.

3. Firestone, “Green apple — lime — pretty sweet, not much impact, v. taut, tart, crisp.” Good. About $11.

4. King Estate Next, “Quite neutral — no more than pleasant.” A disappointment, because I usually like King Estate’s pinot gris and pinot noir. About $12-$13.

5. Bergström, “Petrol, limestone — apple & apple blossom — a tad sweet — but crisp acid and a taut mineral finish infused with spiced grapefruit.” Quite enjoyable. Very Good+. About $22-$28.

6. Pierre Sparr Reserve, “Pleasant, attractive, quite floral — a little sweet on the entry but immediately goes dry — tart, even pert — doesn’t feel balanced.” Another disappointment. Good+. About $20-$23. (I wrote about the vastly superior — or younger and fresher — ’07 version of this wine here.)

7. Barnard Griffin, “Lime, peach & pear, touch of almond and almond blossom, takes a few minutes for flavors to unfold — peach and pear, tons of limestone, attractive texture.” A well-balanced riesling, not quite compelling. Very Good. About $13.

8. Summer Dry, “Clean, fresh, bright — limestone, pear, melon, lime — hint of petrol, a little earthy — complex range of spice and floral effects — dry, crisp, taut — heaps of shale and limestone, formidably dry finish — quite a wine.” Excellent. About $16, and Great Value.

9. Blue Slate, “Peach, pear and petrol — spiced and honeyed apricot — initial sweetness balanced by bright, clean acidity — penetrating minerality — very attractive.” Very Good+. About $19.

10. Anything Goes, “Generally nicely done –a little sweet — good acid balance, lime, grapefruit & peach w/ a touch of orange peel — tart acid and limestone — enjoyable.” Very Good. About $13. The idea is that anything, as in any food, goes with this wine.

11. August Kesseler. “Real riesling — petrol, lime, lychee, green apple & apple blossom — jasmine — sweet, slightly honeyed entry but v. dry — taut and tart, scintillating acidity and minerality, lovely balance. long finish.” Excellent. About $16, a Fantastic Bargain.

12. Schloss Vollrads. “V. dry, crisp, tart, taut & supple, pure minerality layered under spicy peach, pear and lime peel.” Very Good+. About $17-$21.

13. Dr. Loosen “Dr. L.” “Soft, floral, pretty sweet — simple and direct, dry finish, not much character.” Good+. About $11-$14.

14. Mönchhof Estate. “Earthy & minerally — sweetness extends back through mid-palate — balanced by taut acidity, rollicking spice — lovely texture, both crisp and lush — heaps of limestone — a sense of energy and engagement.” Excellent. About $16-$19 and another Great Value.

I think that the qualities distinguishing the best German examples from the other wines in this roster are what I noted about the Monchhof Estate 2007, a sense not simply of authenticity but of energy and engagement, of fulfilling a purpose and accomplishing what a grape can do. That’s the case, of course, with all expressive wines that compellingly appeal to our sensibilities.

The results of this small tasting should not prejudice My Readers against rieslings made other than in Germany. In California, for example, look for the excellent rieslings of Napa Valley’s Trefethen and Smith-Madrone, or Gainey from Santa Ynez Valley, and from Australia, Mount Horrocks and Tim Adams, both in Clare Valley.

LL and I eat a steak perhaps once a month, and we want it to be a good one. Friday night, she took a rib-eye from Westwind Farms, a family-owned operation in East Tennessee that treks to Memphis every weekend to sell beef, pork and chicken, all organic, grass-fed, free-range animals, and rubbed it with a mixture of garlic, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Then (courtesy of a recipe in the May 2009 issue of Bon Appetit magazine), she reduced a half-cup of balsamic vinegar over medium heat, added shallots, olive oil and crushed red pepper, simmered some more and then whisked in parsley, capers and thyme, thus producing an almost indescribably intense Sludge of the Gods. I fired up the ol’ non-gas Weber — I don’t understand people who feel compelled to have whole kitchens on their patios — with hardwood charcoal (no briquettes, please! and no “lighter fluid” that stinks up a whole neighborhood!) and cooked the steak about three and a half minutes on each side, coming out perfectly medium rare on the inside and crusty on the outside.

Have mercy! The combination of the steak itself and its spicy rub with the incredible dark, rich, primeval sauce was — vegetarians don’t read this! — transporting. Yay on the cavemen who discovered the fruitful conjunction of fire and flesh.

For the wine, I wanted a classic sort of cabernet sauvignon whose structure and minerally nature would align with the steak’s charry, toothsome, earthy character, and I got what I wanted with Tom Eddy’s Elodian Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. This 100 percent cabernet deftly balances scrumptious, even sumptuous fruit with the rigor of dusty tannins and earthy minerals and a foundation of oak that’s primarily French but includes some American and Hungarian. Despite this arsenal of substantiality, the wine is clean and bright, vibrant with acidity and delicious with flavors of ripe, spicy and fleshy black currants and black cherries. It embodies the abundance of purity and intensity married to silkiness and invigorating presence that we relish in the best Napa Valley cabernet wines. 1,100 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $40.

Sometimes it almost doesn’t pay to read the press material that comes with wine, or the back label, for that matter. For example, the back labels of Layer Cake wines carry this little story:

My old grandfather made and enjoyed wine for 80 years. He told me the soil in which vines lived were a layer cake. He said the wine, if properly made, was like a great layer cake, fruit, mocha and chocolate, hints of spice and rich, always rich. “Never pass up a layer cake,” he would say. I have always loved those words.

Subject-verb agreement error aside, thank god the old duffer didn’t say, “My boy, wine is like a bowl of Count Chocula, rich, chocolatey, milky. Never pass up a bowl of Count Chocula.” The effect is pretty much the same. Gramps was prescient about one thing: The wines of Layer Cake — motto: “One Hundred Percent Pure” — are certainly “rich, always rich.” The problem is that wine, “if properly made,” has more going for it than richness, a necessity that seems to have eluded the producers of Layer Cake Shiraz 2008, South Australia. The Layer Cake label is owned by, as he is inevitably defined, “Napa based wine visionary Jayson Woodbridge.”

Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 is described on the press sheet as “a pure fruit bomb.” How embarrassingly ’90s, yet how true. The wine is very rich, plummy and jammy, a concoction, it feels like, of blackberry preserves infused with port and so laden with boysenberry that it could be mistaken for an over-ripe, warm-climate zinfandel. True to the “layer cake” concept, the wine is packed with mocha and chocolate and, after a few minutes, actually smells like chocolate cake with brandied black cherries decorated with candied lavender and violets. The finish brings in a whiff of Bazooka Bubble Gum, rhubarb and dried cranberry. The texture is, not surprisingly, dense, chewy and almost viscous; it’s the old velvet fist in the velvet glove technique. I know that this immoderately fruity, structureless fashion is popular in some quarters — Wine Enthusiast gave this wine’s ’07 version 90 points — but I found it undrinkable. About $15.

The “Winemaker’s Notes” for the Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 list as among the wine’s virtues, “No added acid, no American oak.” Actually, this is a wine that could use more acid structure to give it some backbone, but what’s interesting is the “no American oak” admonition. When did American oak become the Big Boogieman, especially in Australia, where the use of American oak, cheaper than French, is widespread? American oak, judiciously used, as with Ridge zinfandels, brings its own desirable qualities to the table.

Not to be too much of a jerk about this, but after tasting the over-the-top Layer Cake Shiraz 2008, I needed a more rational style of shiraz (remember, that’s the syrah grape), so I turned to the Robert Oatley Shiraz 2007, from Australia’s Mudgee region, 162 miles northwest of Sydney, in New South Wales. Oatley was the owner of the well-known Rosemount winery in Hunter Valley before selling in 2001 to Southcorp, which was taken over by Fosters in 2005.

With the Robert Oakley Shiraz 2007, one feels the structure as well as the fruit with every sip. Briery and brambly black currents, black cherries and plums are permeated by smoky potpourri and bitter chocolate — bitter chocolate being intense and austere, not sweet or enveloping — with touches of wild blueberry. The grounding in oak is definitely there, from 12 months in a combination of French and American barrels, but it’s neither toasty nor tinged with vanilla; the word we want is “rigor,” and that quality is provided not only by wood but by dry, slightly chewy tannins and vibrant acidity. In other words, the wine offers sensuous appeal but also the satisfaction of a balanced and essential structure. Excellent. About $20.

To be honest — that’s moi! — I did enjoy the Layer Cake Primitivo a.k.a. Zinfandel 2007, from Italy’s Puglia region. While its opening salvo is ripe, plummy, juicy and jammy, bursting with spice and toasty oak, and its blackberry, currant and blueberry flavors are lavishly washed with smoke, lavender and licorice, and you’re thinking, “Man, this is wearing me out,” the wine pulls up a strain of walnut shell, a foresty layer of briers and brambles, a hint of tarry minerals that lend some balancing restraint and a bit of austerity to the finish. Whew! Very Good+. About $15.

Layer Cake wines are imported by Vintage Point, Sonoma, Cal. Robert Oatley wines are imported by Oatley Wines, Petaluma, Cal.

Count Chocula is, of course, a registered trademark of General Mills.

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